How to query like Bilbo Bagginses

So my last post was all about finding the courage to send out query letters to literary agents for my novel, MOTHER MONA. I finally found a little bit between the couch cushions, and so I actually went for it. (scream)

You know those action movies where there’s a skinny little guy who takes on the world…

115186601_348382c“I’m going on an adventure.”

… and then he proves himself in battle and thinks he’s done, but whoa, no – he’s just getting started? And as the movie progresses, there are always bigger hills to climb and scarier monsters to battle? Kind of like, it never ends and the poor little guy is on his knees screaming, “DEAR LORD HOW MUCH MORE CAN I TAKE?”

Yeah. Querying is a lot like that. I’ll show you how. There are specific steps involved.

1. First, you find the agents you adore: the ones which your extensive research has showngandalf are compatible with your kind of writing, are open to queries, and have compassionate-looking avatars on Twitter and/or share your bad eating habits. You compose an email to each one containing your query letter. You personalize each one (Dear Agent is frowned upon but I think Hey You Sweet Thang is okay in some circles), and go to each agent’s website and review their submission guidelines (even though you’ve already cut and pasted them onto your handy-dandy AGENTS spreadsheet on Excel). You say a quick prayer, cross yourself, stop and re-read your email for typos, cross yourself again, stop clenching your fists and shake your hands until you can feel your fingers again, remember to breathe, eat a chocolate chip for luck, and hit “send.”

2. Immediately after hitting “send,” go to your inbox. Did they reply yet? If so, see the steps below. If not, check your “sent” folder. Is it there? If not, check your internet connection. Wonder if you remembered to pay your internet bill, and then realize … of course you did, you have that agent’s profile up on Twitter right there. If it is there in your “sent” folder, re-check the email address. Oh bless us and splash us, is that the right email address? Pull up the submission guidelines on their website again. Whew. Wait … did you remember to paste the appropriate agent’s name into the salutation? OH GOD!!! Wait, okay you’re good. Remind yourself that some agents can get as many as 100 queries or more every day. Give them at least a couple hours to read yours.

Gandalf reading

3. This is where you’ll need to have an iPhone, because it is important to check your inbox regularly, and you won’t want to be tied to a landline. If your teenager spies your phone on the kitchen counter next to you while you’re doing dishes after dinner and tries to stealthily grab it to check her tumbler blog, or her own email account, or call 911 or something equally not-nearly-as-important-as-your-incoming-agent-email, just yell “GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY PHONE!” – but make sure you’ve already dried and put away the sharp knives first because they might jump back a few feet. That’s okay – keeps them on their toes. Nothing like a little healthy fear of the mom. =)

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4. Soon, In a day or two, Eventually, Finally, your iPhone will make that wonderful little “You’ve Got Mail” sound as you’re tucking your toddler into bed, and the Old Lady will go straight from swallowing-the-bird-to-catch-the-spider to well-she-should’ve-stayed-a-vegetarian-anyway-so-goodnight, and you will bang your head on the top bunk in your haste (but what’s a little blood for the sake of art?) and you will check your inbox and find a response from one of the agents you queried.

gollum happy

5. Now, agents can respond to queries with anything from “My eyes are bleeding, don’t ever email me again!” to “This is wonderful, you are the next Emerson, when can we do lunch?” The responses generally fall into one of four categories: form rejection; personalized rejection; hmm, how about you send me a bit of your manuscript (partial request); and dang girl – send me the whole darn thing right away! (in the writer biz that’s called a “full”). If you get a good old-fashioned form rejection, be proud: you’re in good company. I hear CS Lewis was rejected like 7 million times for Narnia. Still, it hurts. Vodka helps. So does chocolate. Cry a little. Cross that agent’s name off your spreadsheet (or at least change their name to an unflattering shade of medium grey, so there) and tell yourself they really aren’t as awesome as you always thought they were. Eat another bite of chocolate and decide that yeah, they are, but that’s okay.

OR

6. If you’re really super lucky, you’ll get a personalized rejection. This is awesome because then you can brag about it to all your writerly friends. The personalized rejection means a Real Life Agent thinks you don’t Totally Suck Completely, and you’re worthy of taking the time to convey a smidge of hope to. Understand that it is a wee smidge, because after all, it’s still a rejection. Print it out nevertheless. Put it in a folder so you can frame it later. Have some more vodka. Resume iPhone vigil, but stay away from heavy wood furniture.

The-Hobbit-Azog

One semi-scary monster down …

7. Now, one day you might check your inbox at 5:35 in the morning (because agents do not sleep or eat but subsist off words alone) and find – cue the Hallelujah Chorus – a note from an agent requesting a partial or full manuscript from you. When you’re done screaming (why should the rest of your family sleep in anyway? You’ve been meaning to get them on a schedule), eat a bite of celebratory chocolate. You just killed the dragon. You’re IN THERE, buddy. A Real Live Agent likes you. Do the happy dance, pour yourself a cuppa coffee and send that baby right on over. Then, take a deep breath – because you’re gonna need it – and proceed to the next step.

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8. Yeah. Here’s where that bigger hill happens where Bilbo has to kill another dragon (or similar scary creature). One that makes the first one look like a cute fluffy bunny.

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Because now, the stakes are amped up, and agents can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to read manuscripts. Go ahead and add a little Baileys to that coffee. I’ll wait.

And wait. And wait.

9. It only gets better, and scarier, from here. Assuming you’re one of the 3-4% of requested manuscripts agents fall in love with (and requests only constitute a fraction of a percent of the amount of queries they receive), and the agent calls you and you both decide you’re a perfect fit for each other, and you actually become an AGENTED WRITER, guess what? The whole thing just starts all over again (oh, and did I mention revisions yet? Heh heh heh. Have a Snickers bar). Your agent turns around and tries to sell your manuscript to publishers … wait for it … by writing a pitch letter very similar to the query letter you wrote them.

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I’m told being “on sub” – that excruciating time when your agent is out there trying to sell your book – is even more frightening than querying. I wouldn’t know (yet!), but I believe it. To be so, so close to the very tip of the mountain, only to fall back down again if a publisher rejects your book, has gotta really hurt. And, you’re no longer in control – it’s all up to that super awesome agent of yours.

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  It is in Men agents that we must place our hope.

Through all this though, I have discovered a pretty good way to deal with the pain and fear of querying a novel. You’ll never guess what. Okay you guessed it. By writing another book.

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More on that in my next post. 😉

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For Mother’s Day I Want A Heap of Guts

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People in your works of fiction always think the story is about them.

It is.

And, it’s not.

For example, I have spent hours (okay a lot of minutes) trying to convince my mother that my novel MOTHER MONA is not about her. It really isn’t.

She’s in there though – just a wee bit of her. So is my beloved mother-in-law. So am I.

MONA, my main character, is a woman who’s lived her life restrained by fear. Fear of connecting, fear of leaving her comfort zone, fear of leaving an alcoholic husband. Fear of germs. Of spiders. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of fear.

See, there’s me in there. Certainly not that bad, but one of the perks of having a vivid imagination is that not only do you view the world in a way that makes people think you’re at least a little bit nuts, you also have the capability to imagine every little possible thing that can go wrong. And, I hate spiders.

So here I’ve gone and written a novel. Now, Mother’s Day is in a couple days and if you follow any kind of media whatsoever, you’ve been inundated with gift ideas for Mom. My kids have been asking me what I want (clean house, long nap, vacation to someplace warm, lots of hugs and kisses – not necessarily in that order). Then that Little Voice said, “What do you want? Guts.” Not the moose kind (been there, done that) or the fish kind (done that too). The writerly kind. Yeah.

So my Mother’s Day gift to me? The guts to query. For you non-writer types, that means I’ve spent months writing a novel, and weeks and weeks polishing it until my eyeballs bled, and now it’s time to send a blurb about it to literary agents to see if they like it well enough to represent me. The blurbs are called queries. So “to query” literally means “to rip your heart out and wave it in front of the whole wide world to criticize or reject or maybe even laugh at.”

Gulp.

I went bungee jumping once. Years ago, in Florida. Bouyed by copious amounts of liquid courage and the effrontery of my husband, who said I’d chicken out. I showed him. From 1,000 feet, I jumped. It was terrifying. And wonderful. And ever since, I’ve been able to look back and say to myself, “Ha! You did that! You can do anything!” and “I told you so” to my husband (which is also fun because it doesn’t happen often).

Today, I’m jumping. Leaping off the big fat, scary query cliff is my Mother’s Day gift to me. Tawanda!

But I still want all the hugs and kisses from my kids. And the long nap.

Everybody, duck!

IMG_5094One of the fun things my main character Mona gets to do in my novel MOTHER MONA is feed the family ducks at her daughter’s cabin on Spruce Island, Alaska. When our family last visited Spruce Island, we were rather surprised to see locals keeping ducks rather than chickens. We personally own 11 pet chickens – and I say “pet” chickens because they haven’t given us any eggs in months. My guess is they are waiting for Lent, when we give up eggs, meat and dairy. Our chickens are sarcastic like that.

If you’ve never had farm-fresh eggs, you’ve practically never had eggs. When our chickens started molting (that’s a poultry-esque term for turning into a diva and eating lots of expensive chicken feed for free), we had to go back to buying store-bought eggs. It was kind of like switching to diet rootbeer … not even close.

So when we learned that breakfast would include duck eggs, we were definitely intruigued. They were delicious. If we hadn’t known they weren’t chicken, we never would have guessed – although they are quite a bit larger than chicken eggs.

duck-eggsThe great thing about most domestic ducks is that they aren’t food snobs. In fact, one of their favorite meals was the slugs that grow so abundantly in Southeast Alaska. Every morning, the kids would walk the plank-covered paths, plucking the slimy little dudes from the grass at the edges, getting slug juice under their nails. The ducks went crazy for them, and the kids had a blast holding the slugs for the ducks to gently grabble with their beaks. Yes, I just made up the word grabble, but it suits.

The ducks poor Mona had to contend with are nothing like the sweet-tempered creatures we visited. Generally, most domestic ducks are very nice. My fictional ducks Quick and Quack are Indian Runners, and Bear, ironically, is a Buff Orpington Duck – known for being sweet and docile. In a novel, where’s the fun in that? In real life though, they ar4353579009_6dc7ee490b_ze two of the most popular domestic duck breeds, producing on average around 200 eggs a year. Sometimes even more.

My characters – like our friends on Spruce Island – own ducks rather than chickens for several reasons, but primarily because they are more cold-hardy than chickens. They’re usually quite affectionate too, and on a frugal homestead, 50% larger eggs are a definite plus.

And, they eat slugs. What’s not to love about that?

For more info on raising ducks, I recommend Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks.

Research is vital (and fun!)

Research is an important component of writing – even in fiction. Of course the common advice is to write what you know, and that advice is absolutely dead on. However, details matter. So for a writer, it pays to educate yourself.

stove

Toward that end, I spent a wonderful afternoon at a friend’s house learning how she cooks on her woodburning stove. Mona, the main character in my novel MOTHER MONA, is a city girl who rarely cooks for herself at home. Most of her meals involve take-out or the salad bar at the local organic grocer. However, when she travels to a remote Alaskan cabin to be with her sick daughter, there’s no grocer for miles. Nor is there any electricity, gas or running water. Mona has to learn to cook on her daughter’s woodburning stove. And Mona learns, as I have today, that it involves as much art as science.

Luckily for me, today’s lesson involved baking three loaves of fresh whole-wheat bread. YUM! My friend Athanasia has been cooking on a woodburning stove for years. She’s lived the off-the-grid lifestyle for much of her life, and let me tell you she makes it look easy.
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It’s not. And we didn’t even go into the wood-chopping part.

I took notes on when to close the main regulator, when to turn the bread so it doesn’t all brown on one side (because the fire is hotter closer to the wood box), how to manipulate the burner rings on top to accomodate your tea kettle or fryer (cast-iron cookware is heavy!) and how to make your house smell pretty simply by adding a bit of dried lavender buds to the bread-warming drawer.

Of course, any good researcher will tell you thoroughness is of vital import. And so, as I drove home I tore off and ate about a third of the steamy warm loaf of whole wheat she sent with me. Oh yeah!

Sadly for Mona, her first few tries at woodstove cooking come out looking nothing like this. But let’s just say that’s an area in which I already have plenty of expertise. I’ve already done that research, thank you very much.

kettle

NOTE:                                                                                  (It’s hard to tell from the photo, but the bottom of this kettle is actually inside the stove here. The fire box is directly below it. That round piece you see normally lies flat, but can be removed so the bottom 1/2 inch of the kettle fits directly over the flame. There is another ring that also can be removed to accomocate a frying pan. How cool is that!)

Making a good Mother

Woman taking cherry pie from oven

Yeah, no. Not that kind.

As a matter of fact, I am sitting at my desk NOT doing laundry, not baking banana bread, listening to my kids argue over which episode of Go Diego Go to watch … but hey, it’s a snow day. Nevertheless I am fully appreciating the irony here. Feel free to take part.

The Mother I am referring to, actually, is the novel I am working on, “Mother Mona.” Here’s the gist of it, from the back of my imaginary best-selling book:

Mona, a 49-year-old divorced CPA from Newport Beach, was never a contender for Mother of the Year. However, her daughter Beth needs her now. Beth’s pregnancy has gone wrong, and Mona’s son-in-law Sasha asks her to come help her daughter recover after childbirth almost kills her. Mona travels to the remote Alaskan island where Beth and her family live – without electricity, in-floor heating or running water.

 Mona is completely out of her element in the remote Alaskan cabin. There’s a humungous spider named Pip living in the outhouse. After years of living on takeout and salads, her daughter’s wood burning cook stove is a complete mystery to her. She refuses to feed slimy slugs to the ducks that happen to despise her. One more meal of canned salmon and she’s going to cry. Her daughter is distant, her son-in-law is absent, and her quirky, homeschooled grandchildren think she’s nuts. Her only friends are a small group of Russian nuns that live on a nearby island and a  64-year-old Alutiiq hermit who thinks like a pirate.

The thing is, writing a novel is a lot like being pregnant for the first time. You obsess over every little detail. You stand in line at the grocery store and jot different names on scratch paper under “milk, bread, tomatoes.” You read every writerly book, magazine article and online blog you can find, and hope like heck that you’re doing it all right. It’s all you can talk about – even as you watch the eyes of friends and acquaintances gloss over like dead salmon on a hot beach. And worse, the writing muse will kick you in the gut without warning, waking you up at night and making you gasp out loud in public. Your concerned husband will ask if you’re OK, and you’ll reply, “Ouch! I just figured out what was wrong with chapter 3!”

Sadly, no one feels the urge to pamper writers like a woman in that “delicate condition,” although I would maintain that being in the midst of writing a difficult scene is a pretty delicate condition to be in. No one offers to rub your feet or cook you dinner. No one urges you to take it easy “for the sake of the novel” or eat because you’re “thinking for two now.”

So, that being the case, I suppose I’d better get a load of laundry going and feed the kids something healthy for lunch. Like any good mother would. Just as soon as I finish these last few pages.